Hades (2020)

I’ve had an interesting relationship with Hades. I purchased in Early Access in late 2019, on the Epic Games Store, when I felt it was already very hyped. I played about 20-30 runs (no clears) on 2 different saves (1 at work and 1 at home – this was before they integrated Epic Game Services for cloud saves), and moved on to other games.

When the game moved out of Early Access in 2020 – I was quite surprised at the big reception it had, perhaps even more so amongst game developers (at least those that show up in my Twitter timeline). This revealed a bias I had developed: I had subconsciously discounted the marketing opportunities of the “real launch” and the subsequent (well-deserved) critical acclaim.

I would though, love to see an updated sales figure, which would help better quantify what portion of lifetime sales are from “Early Access”.

Somewhat related: as of Mar 10, Valheim has sold 5.7M copies in 5 weeks of Early Access on Steam; what are the odds that it will have another massive adoption bump when it removes the “Early Access” label?

In any case – I got back into Hades back in January, with another fresh save. And I was truly hooked. As of this writing, I’ve spent roughly 200 hours, and have completed all achievements (it’s been a long time since I cared about doing that in any game – the last game I aimed for 100% was Red Dead Redemption a decade ago). I’m still doing 1-2 runs per day, mostly trying to beat my speedrun personal best – which, as of Mar 17, is 9m35s (the world record is 5m57s; my very first clear was over 40m).

My personal best time in Hades

Design systems

Let’s talk about the design systems that Hades employs to deliver a 200h gaming experience.

Within a “run” – leveraging randomization to create a unique experience every time:

  • A full “run” consists of 30+ rooms across 4 biomes1, with 4 boss fights.
  • Randomized room types – a “run” is constructed of a random collection of rooms (with some assembly parameters) :
    • Majority of rooms are combat oriented, with some variation in enemies composition: standard enemies rooms, mini-boss rooms, boss rooms. There are also some special objectives that can be applied, for example “survive 45s” or “compete with Thanatos to see who has more kills”.
    • Non-combat rooms: shops, fountains, story rooms (one per biome in the first 3 biome), Chaos Gates (which gives players the chance to take on some additional risk for some reward).
    • Parameters: typically, biome 1 has 14 rooms; biome 2 is 10 rooms; biome 3 is 12 rooms; the last room per biome is the boss room, while the preceding one is a shop.
  • Crafted room layouts and runtime enemy spawn behavior:
    • Rooms are picked from a handcrafted pool (not procedurally generated).
    • There are a (large) number of spawn points from which enemies can spawn; enemies spawn in waves; and spawn location is influenced by the player’s location.
    • The result is that even when the same room is played repeatedly, the flow of combat is rarely exactly the same.
  • Randomized room rewards – after the player completes a typical room, they are presented with 1-3 choices for the next room, with the corresponding reward (and sometimes indication of room type) displayed:
    • “Boons” are usually the most sought-after, and directly shapes a player’s build each run. There are 8 “standard” Gods that offer roughly 150 Boons in total, including 28 “Duo Boons” (which require any 2 of the 8 Gods as prerequisites, 8*7/2=28). There are also 2 special Gods, Hermes (with a set of Boons unrelated to other Gods), and Chaos (from Chaos Gates, who grants bonuses after inflicting debuffs).
    • “Hammer upgrades” significantly alter your weapon’s effects, providing another layer of build customization.
    • Other items that impact the run: “Poms”, which level up your Boons; gold, which can be spent at the shops in the run; “Centaur Heart” which grants bonus HP.
    • 4 meta-game currencies for permanent progression (which can impact a run, after certain meta upgrades).
  • Heat system – as a significant end-game system, the Heat system offers players a variety of choices to increase the difficulty and modify a run’s experience, for example:
    • Quantity of enemies, their HP, damage, attack speed.
    • Armored enemies have special additional effects.
    • Boss fights are modified and upgraded.

Outside a “run” / permanent progression systems:

  • “Mirror of Night” – this is the main permanent power progression system, with 12 passive ability slots, and 2 choices per slot. These passives unlock a lot of power very early on – for example the 3rd ability Death Defiance grants 1 extra revive per upgrade.
  • “Fated List of Minor Prophecies” – this is a quest system with 50+ unique quests. A typical quest is to acquire each Boon of a God at least once, and as such, quite directly encourages exploration.
  • Weapons and Weapon Aspects – starting out with one weapon, players eventually unlock 6 different weapons, and each weapon has 4 “aspects” (variants with different passives or movesets).
  • Keepsakes and Companions – “Keepsakes” are items that grant passives during a run (for example, the first keepsake listed grants bonus HP). “Companions” are a special type of keepsakes that grant a consumable active (e.g. 5 charges of an big AOE damage spell). Both are gradually unlocked by meeting with the game’s vast cast of NPCs, and progressing the narrative. In the end-game, keepsakes are integral to players crafting their desired builds in a run, as after each biome you can change your equipped keepsake, so there’s a light min-max game with keepsake management.
  • Achievements – this is the distribution platform (Steam / Epic etc.) achievements system. Functionally it overlaps with the quest system above, but provides a different set of goals. In my experience this list was easier to finish than the quest system.

I realize this is a pretty dry list to read through. But there are a few things that jumped out. The first is that these systems are quite independent, and as a result multiplicative in their impact on replayability. The second is that each system is scalable in isolation, and once scaled up in content, gives a nice boost to overall replayability. I suspect this pattern is partly a reflection of the game’s public development in Early Access: new systems were layered on over time, and content per system were also added over time. (I haven’t gone back to check the patch notes to validate this guess.) In any case, this is an elegant set of systems, and collectively the game feels surprisingly content-rich given the small size of the dev team.

Experiential recap

Recapping my 200 hours with Hades so far, the game has consistently given me a smooth experience with clear progression goals to pursue.

In the very beginning, the game is primarily about exploration: pushing deeper into the biomes, overcoming the major bosses for the first time; seeing new Gods and their Boons; trying out different weapons. At the same time, the early meta progression was generous and directly lifting the player’s power, which meant the player was making deeper runs even without necessarily growth in skill (but usually the 2 were organically intertwined).

At some point, I ran into the final boss Hades for the first time (and beat him!). This significantly moves the narrative forward – without giving away too much, this is why I embedded the soundtrack at the top. The narrative momentum compelled me to keep playing – I needed to find out what happens next, and with every full clear, I learnt a bit more. I can’t emphasize enough how surprisingly strong the narrative hook was during this phase.

After beating Hades enough times, the main narrative concluded. At this point, I kept playing because there were still more gameplay content to experience – weapon aspects to unlock and upgrade; and the Heat system which rewarded the rare currencies needed for weapons. There was also a narrative epilogue, that essentially required grinding more conversations with NPCs and increasing the relationship with them.

There were also still quests and achievements to chase, and interestingly, chasing these quests often meant playing sub-optimally, for example picking a Boon option I never played before (to move towards completing a quest), even though there’s a more powerful option.

As an aside, after about 50-100 hours with the game, I switched my input device from keyboard+mouse to ps5 gamepad. I was motivated to do so because I was seriously hurting my wrists playing this game (the game’s frantic spamming is quite excessive). One lesson of this switch-up: at least in my case, understanding of game state mattered a lot more than execution ability, as I did a full clear in my very first gamepad run, despite noticeably fighting the controls as I tried to retrain muscle memory.

Up to this point, I hadn’t really done any theory-crafting, and was not thoughtful about builds. After venturing into some Youtube content, I found myself accidentally diving into speed-running. The 2nd 100 hours was thus spent on a mix of farming Heat levels, pushing high Heat to accomplish a challenge, and dabbling in speed-running. I found that I liked the game enough to always give myself a new immediate goal, just as I was getting tired of the grind.

Speedrunning

A section about speedruns specifically. Hades has an active speedrun community, and the game seems aware of the fact that speedrunning is a key source of community content (UGC). There are some nice nods in-game towards this: for example, right after beating your own fastest time, your character will say “I bet I can go even faster”.

As an aside, I’m the type of player that never theory-crafts builds, and rely on “netdecking” (to borrow a CCG genre term), i.e. referencing the community-discovered meta builds and strategies. So my venture into speedrunning was accidental, out of a desire to understand the meta. Once I tried executing some meta builds, I got some very addictive positive feedback as I saw my clear times dramatically decrease. At least for me, this was a very enjoyable loop, and I see it as a type of engagement lever for a pure PVE experience.

More broadly, I’ve found it interesting how the Hades speedrun community has kept engagement up, by constantly adopting new speedrun formats. What do I mean here? The main Hades speedrun leaderboard is the “Unseeded AnyHeat”, which translated to plain English is a competition to see who has the fastest time for a single clear (based on the in-game clock), at any difficulty, without manipulating the run’s RNG seeding. However, this leaderboard has gotten quite stale, as the meta has largely been solved (there is one particular weapon that is clearly the fastest), and the current best record has already been set to under 6 minutes.

If you are a speedrunner / video content creator, trying to improve your standings on this leaderboard is an effort in diminishing returns. Instead, you could switch your attention to the other leaderboards, for example, the high Heat leaderboards, or “Fresh File” (fastest time to beating Hades for the first time, from a brand new save), or 3 Weapons (3 consecutive clears, with 3 different weapons). These different leaderboards spawn their own unique metas. And it’s not hard to imagine new formats being invented – as long as there is a common interest in playing the game, and competition based on it, the community can make up new rules to play by.

In the grand scheme of things, this community is quite niche. The amount of people who are good enough, and care enough to record and submit their speedrun videos for this game is probably just a few hundred to thousand. But I think there are some useful insights here for game developers making PVE experiences and worried about long-term engagement.

  1. For those familiar with the game, I’m cheating a bit as I’m mentally treating each of the branches in Styx as 1 “room”.

The Last of Us Part II

Some notes on the controversial blockbuster sequel.

***Spoilers warning*** I’ll be liberally discussing all aspects of the game, so please do not read further if you want to avoid spoilers.

First a quick note about my play experience – I got the disc a week after the launch date, by which time there was already a massive storm online. Despite my efforts, I did have some key story points spoilt, so going in I was somewhat prepared mentally.

I could only afford to play a couple of hours a day, a bit more on weekends, so it took me a good two weeks to get through. My final session was a 5-hour binge on a weekday night, ending at 3/4am (that day at work wasn’t very productive).

I started the game late, was armed with some knowledge of the drama, and had the play sessions paced out – I felt all these were positive factors that helped me enjoy the game. To me this game is a flawed modern masterpiece, that deserves to be remembered as one of the most ambitious narrative games of the decade.

Narrative structure & theme

TLOU2 follows a very rigorous structure, which I’d break down as follows:

TLOU2 acts

The structure showcases the game’s risk-taking ambitions. In my view there are 2 primary risks taken: 1) the story decision to kill off the predecessor’s protagonist, Joel, as the inciting incident; 2) in a surprise switch at the half-way point, forcing players to play as Joel’s killer, Abby – and revealing that this is a game with dual playable protagonists on the opposite ends of a revenge plot.

In retrospect, to me the game’s real theme is about how people deal with trauma, via a story of hate-driven vengeance. The game delivers a traumatic event to players (Joel’s death), then forces players to go through the stages of grief (both in the game as Ellie, and in real life with their own feelings towards Joel). The perspective change to Abby is an experience in forced empathy, which to me is a secondary theme.

The perspective shift is not new as a literary device – Game of Thrones clearly leveraged this to great effect with memorable characters like Jaime and Tyrion Lannister. But this feels like the most ambitious example in a video game I’ve played, and the effects were fascinating. In the climatic fight between Ellie and Abby, like so many players, I did not want to hit the attack button. But, just like the predecessor’s climatic surgery room scene (which you revisit so many times in this game), the game does not offer you a choice. Thankfully, the game ends the fight mercifully.

I’m not going to go deeper on the narrative and theme – that would be a huge endeavor, and many people have already offered lots of great content. I’ll link here one video I particularly enjoyed.

Game loop & “level” pacing

The game’s narrative beats (the bullet points structure above) serve the long-term and mid-term motivations. At times this can feel ham-fisted: I felt Ellie’s 3 days in Seattle was a bit repetitive in its use of “go to point X to find the next clue about Abby’s whereabouts”. Anyhow, if we zoom in 1-2 levels further, we get to the layers of the “core loop” below:

  • Long-term goal, e.g. find Abby
    • Mid-term goal, e.g. go to Hospital
      • A series of “levels”, or set-pieces

My loose definition of a “level” here is a 5-20 minute section of gameplay made up of elements from the following:

  • Combat, stealth or non-stealth (sometimes forced non-stealth)
  • “Walk and talk”, the most basic way to deliver the story
  • Exploration, which is a lot of ambient storytelling (reading notes etc.)
  • Scavenging and crafting
  • Environment puzzles (some light platforming gameplay)
  • On-rails set pieces, e.g. car chases
  • Mini-games, like guitar simulator
  • Cut-scenes

From a player perspective, I wouldn’t say there’s any crazy systemic design innovations – these are the proven gameplay elements of Naughty Dog action adventures. The craft comes from the thoughtful sequencing & arrangement to create great pacing, and the insane polish (and the vast technical investments to deliver that polish).

What I thought the game did particularly well for pacing, was keeping players on their toes with surprises. Examples:

  • Have you grabbed by an enemy (either transitioning into combat or a cut-scene) as you go through a level transition (“squeeze through this space”, exit this door)
  • Give you a clear environment puzzle, then as you are moving towards the solution, have the floor collapse under you into a mini-boss fight
  • Give you a workbench (for equipment upgrades), as you start reviewing your upgrade choices, have enemies rush you and grab you from the bench

The game does these surprises very sparingly (like only once) – but they are very effective at making you second-guess yourself and stay alert. Is there going to be a jump-scare at that next workbench? (No.)

Also, they are done in a fair way – in the workbench example, these enemies didn’t spawn out of nowhere; they came out of a locked room in the apartment. So if you had planted some mines in front of that door before you engaged the workbench, you would have had the jump on them instead. This is the level of detail and polish that surpasses player expectations.

Transitions – in my view, any time where you go through a transition where you cannot backtrack (e.g. going through a door/gate and blocking it behind you, going down a sliding slope, jumping down a vertical), that’s usually a sign of a level transition, which serves pacing and possibly technical goals. There are also occasionally hard transitions after cut-scenes (teleporting you to a location), some of which I felt created dissonance (after having you struggle mightily for a few hours to get to a place, it seemed trivially easy how you got to another location).

There are some issues for me with the basic gameplay formula. Resource hoarding is a pretty big problem (at least at moderate difficulty). Thematically as a post-apocalyptic survival adventure, the game encourages players to engage in stealth through tight resource constraints. This is in conflict with utilizing the fun combat skills that players unlock. (The player could tweak the difficulty settings very granularly, for example increase the environmental resource amount to encourage more open combat.) To be clear, I actually agree with the game’s trade-off here: the combat is less fun, but thematically more immersive. But it’s one element why some players find this game un-fun to play.

Another problem created by the scavenging gameplay and ambient stortytelling is backtracking. That is, after clearing an area, combing back through it to open every last drawer, and trying to find every ambient story point / collectible. This is again in conflict with the desired pacing. And it also creates narrative dissonance – “I gotta hurry to rescue my friends… but after going through every drawer.” Even in levels/sequences where there was clear urgency, I couldn’t help but think – hey, maybe there’s some rare collectible here, I should take my time.

Lastly, the concessions in the buddy AI was at times immersion-breaking. As a Naughty Dog convention, there are many parts of the game where you have an AI companion. This serves important story goals (after all, without a buddy, it’s hard to have “walk and talk” sequences), and they can assist in puzzle and combat gameplay as well. But in stealth gameplay, they still land in uncanny valley too often – they can sneak around, and will look for positions of cover, but it feels like overall they are still treated as invisible to enemies. I’m not 100% sure of this – there was one occurrence where it felt like the companion was detected; but on the hand there’s probably a dozen occurrences where the companion should have been spotted, but was completely ignored (sometimes comically).

Problematic game length

This was the biggest issue I had with the game. If we take each bullet point in the 4-act structure above as a “chapter”, and each chapter roughly takes up 2-3 hours of game time, then we get to a 20+ hour game length. In my own experience, I got to the end of Act 2 cliffhanger after roughly 18 hours, and ended the game after about 32 hours. For a linear action adventure, it’s both an astonishing feat and an excessive over-indulgence.

I feel it’s the product of compromises – it was set that the game would have dual protagonists, and each protagonist’s arc demanded a experience that couldn’t be too compressed. But the end result is a journey that is both too long and still too rushed. There wasn’t space to flesh out the numerous side characters, and I’d loved to see more of the Seraphites’ story, for example.

I can’t help but think, what if this game was broken into 2 parts, and released episodically? This is most probably a terrible idea, with lots of risky questions – how will the episodes be priced, how far apart would the releases be? How many players would purchase the first episode but not the second? But to me it would seem to be a better match with the game’s ambitions, and could perhaps help position expectations better.

Alternatively – what if the “chapters” were unlocked at an announced schedule? Like an episode a week (more practically, maybe one chapter every couple of days)? There might be something here, if a narrative-focused game’s content release factored in the social media cycle – e.g. the weekly reddit discussion/reactions of the latest Westworld episode, and the community activity leading up to the next episode. Again, probably a terrible idea still…

Player expectations / toxic fandom

I feel we also have to talk about the massive community controversy since the game’s release. In hindsight, the marketing misdirection was probably too clever and came across toying with players’ emotions. And the overly-strict spoiler guidelines to reviewers was also a major lost opportunity to align player expectations. For example, I don’t think there would have been a significant downside for reviewers to discuss the dual protagonists setup – yes, it would have been less surprising in that moment, but the forced experience in empathy would still hold (and players would be less distracted wondering how long the Abby section would last).

I think I can empathize with much of the community angst, especially the most fervent fans who dived in on launch day and were shocked. That moment of shock, and initial grief, became a rallying call online, and took on a momentum of its own. In contrast, professional reviewers under embargo had to process that moment in isolation, and were obligated (professionally) to finish the game and reflect on the whole experience. This is perhaps one factor contributing to the gulf of opinion between professional reviewers and players.

However, this raw emotion of anger / denial is in no ways justification for the massive abuse (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and various other forms of prejudice / bigotry) hurled at the makers of the game. (Unfortunately, this is all too common these days – The Last Jedi and the 2016 Ghostbusters come to mind.) The sense of entitlement is out of whack. The industry, and the fans, need to reflect on this.

And I guess there’s some meta irony that a game about hatred (it’s futility and overcoming it) is the subject of so much futile hatred. It is after all, a video game, a work of fiction. Perhaps this was the 5D chess that Naughty Dog was playing all along. But at the end of day, as a developer, and as a player, I hope that we can see more games take risks like TLOU2, and I hope the controversy doesn’t discourage game-makers.